Friday, November 26, 2010

Play: How To Tell The Good From The Bad

Playing with other dogs is an important part of a dog’s social life. Frequent play sessions can help keep your dog’s social skills finely tuned as well as provide some great exercise. It can be very satisfying for you as an owner to see your dog having fun, but it can also be stressful if you’re not sure whether or not the behaviors your dog or his playmate are exhibiting are appropriate in dog play. Oftentimes playing dogs can look very rough and even aggressive. Here are some key things to look for that can help determine if you should let your dog play on, or if it’s time for a break.

Play face: When you see a dog with a very wide open mouth, you’re seeing a play face. You can see lots of teeth, and it can look frightening, but a truly aggressive dog will have a more closed and tense mouth with the lips covering the teeth more.

Play bow: When your dog lowers the front half of her body with the hindquarters still raised, she’s doing a play bow, a move to entice others to play. Play bows can be held for awhile, or they can be a very short and subtle bend in the legs.

Pawing: Using a front paw to bat at another dog is an invitation to play.

Role Reversal: When two dogs are playing, it’s a good thing to see them switch positions every now and then. First Spike is on the top, then Fluffy is on the top. First Maggie chases Sadie, then Sadie chases Maggie, etc.

Taking Breaks: Because play can be very arousing, and sometimes arousal can spill over into aggression, it’s good when dogs are able to take brief breaks from play. This may be as simple as taking a break from wrestling to offer a play bow, or to shake off. If you have a dog who doesn’t take breaks like this, talk to your trainer about how to help your dog learn this valuable play skill.

Growling: This can be one of the most difficult things to interpret in dog play. You really need to evaluate the rest of the body language because some dogs are just loud players. Generally though, growling signals a higher level of arousal, so look for the growly dog to take breaks from play as mentioned above. Also, if the growling is very low pitched, or decreases in pitch, that signals a more serious intent.

Hold one back: When two dogs are playing, if you’re concerned that one dog is bullying the other, hold the bully back for a second or two and see how the other dog reacts. If the other dog shakes off and walks away, you know the bully was a little much. If the other dog comes right back at the bully, they were having a good time and enjoying the play.

Respect for Signals: It’s important that dogs respect “back off” signals from other dogs. Freezing, looking away, and snapping are common signals that a dog needs more space. Ideally your dog will recognize these signals and leave that dog alone, but if he doesn’t, go over and call him away.

Raised Hackles: When the hair on a dog’s back goes up, many people think that dog is aggressive, but this is not necessarily the case. Piloerection (the technical term) just signifies arousal. Watch for other body language. If the dog also has a play face and is pawing, don’t worry about it.

Mounting: People are quick to assume dominance when one dog mounts another, but this has never been proven to be the case. The current literature is so varied on this, ascribing it to everything from stress to a play invitation. The bottom line is that if you don’t like it, or the other dog doesn’t like it, call your dog out of the situation. A strong leave it cue (take your attention away from that), can help if this is a recurring issue.

The next time your dog is playing with another dog, watch for these signs of appropriate and inappropriate play. Remember that it’s important to let dogs use their body language, so never punish your dog for communicating with another dog. If you or your dog are uncomfortable, just get out of the situation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My Dog Is Barking and Won't Stop: Here Are TIPS!

(by Brianne Statz)

We recently added a challenging exercise to our group classes – spend 2 minutes or so working with your dog without talking. It may not sound that hard, but it’s surprisingly difficult for our very verbal human brains to accomplish. We like to talk to our dogs, and our dogs do build quite an impressive vocabulary, whether it’s words we purposely teach, like sit and down, or words they pick up on their own, like W-A-L-K. Despite their capacity to learn verbal cues, dogs are generally more visually oriented and communicate more by body language. That means they bark a lot less than we talk. But even so, barking is a behavior that many of us find irritating, and want to eliminate as much as possible.

Here are a few strategies to help curb undesirable barking:

· Train an incompatible behavior – It’s harder (though not impossible) for your dog to bark when he has something in his mouth. Teaching a “get your toy” cue can help for excitement barking, such as when you come home from work or you have a visitor at the door.

· Train an alternative behavior – If your dog knows that something other than barking will be rewarded, chances are he will choose that option. For example, say your dog barks at other dogs while walking. Every time you spot another dog, stop and ask your dog to sit and generously reward him for paying attention to you. As you do this more often, your dog will see other dogs as an opportunity to earn some goodies from you, rather than something to start barking at.

· Reward quiet – This one sounds simple, but can be a true test to your patience. Simply wait for your dog to stop barking and reward the quiet. It works best if you try to be preemptive and reward your dog for being quiet before the barking starts. For example, if your dog likes to bark when he sees someone walk past the front window, spend some time sitting with your dog by the window, and as soon as you see someone going by start lavishly praising and feeding your dog as soon as he sees the person. If he does start barking, wait for him to stop, and then reward. Up the ante by gradually waiting for longer periods of quiet before rewarding.

· Manage the situation – When you don’t want to work on training the bark away, do your best to manage the situation. Close the blind to the front window, give your dog a stuffed Kong or bone to chew, or do a day of doggy daycare to get him really tired.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pets' Pet Names

(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)

Does your pet have a nickname? Pseudonym? Alias? All of the Above? Most of us call our pets by a variety of different “pet names”. Here are mine:

· Payton, my Australian Shepherd is known by all of the following: Liam’s Sweetness Forever (registered name), Tony, Tony the P, PMan, Paytey, Jerkface, Steve Smith (by my brother who wanted me to name him that), and Turd Ferguson (from an SNL sketch – celebrity Jeopardy anyone?)

· Finley, my husky mix is known by these monikers: Fin, Finch, Finchface, FinBinley, and Findersox

· Joan the cat gets called all of these: Baby Joan, JoanBee, Miss Beazley, Little Miss and Snotface Joan

A pet name is a term of endearment and affection, and there is no harm in having them for our pets. Or is there? When it comes to training, they can actually be a problem. One of the first things we talk about in group classes is Name Recognition. We need our dogs to respond to their names so we can get their attention when necessary. We start out in our beginner and puppy classes by having each owner call their dog’s name and reinforce if the dog looks at the owner.
Through the rest of the classes, we work on adding distraction – bouncing balls, squeaking toys, etc., with the goal of our dog’s head immediately jerking around toward us when we call her name.

But when class is over, most of us don’t practice name recognition at home. And to add to that lack of practice once class is over, we frequently use nicknames. What is happening when I call my Aussie Tony, PMan, etc is that “Payton” may not be getting reinforced. So when I do call “Payton”, and don’t get the quick response I expect, I might get frustrated. I think to myself he knows his name – he should look at me when I say it!

Whenever your dog doesn’t respond to his name, take a second and think about the last time you actually rewarded (with a primary reinforcer like food – not with just a “good boy”) your dog for responding to his name. And the last time you rewarded a name recognition without any strings attached (i.e. without making him come inside or stay, or do anything other than simply look at you). All behaviors need to be reinforced every now and then to keep them alive.

Does this mean we shouldn’t have pet names for our pets? I know I couldn’t stop myself if I tried. It just means that we need one “go to name”. One name that we expect a quick response when we call it, and that we put the effort into training that quick response.